Chilling Out About The Fridge

By Douglas Bernon
March 30, 2001
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
21 14.795 N 86 44.698 W

Isla Mujeres is a honky-tonk joint, especially after the primitive quiet of the north shore of Cuba, but it's a great place to do boat projects, chow down on bean and chicken tamales, corn tortillas fresh from the tortillería, and my all-time favorite Mexican food: molé. Sainthood should come to the blessed soul who figured out that chocolate, cinnamon, nuts, seeds and various peppers make the ideal piquante sauce for just about everything.

Photo of corn meal tamales Corn-meal tamales filled with chicken, wrapped in banana leaves, and served piping hot.

I had time on my hands last week, while Bernadette was in Newport to be with her family for our niece's surgery. After the first couple of days of her absence, during which I very much enjoyed the solitude, and the squalor for which live-alone guys are known, I began to feel a little lost by myself, and then quiet down. As the days went on, the responsibility of the boat alone weighed on me, especially as we were experiencing a procession of nortes, as cold fronts are called here, and I was increasingly anxious about the boat dragging. Although I sometimes think optimism is the surest sign one is not paying attention, Bernadette's sanguinity balances out my pessimism more than I realized.

To pass the time, I decided to tackle a few projects from the to-do list. Feeling more magnanimous than usual, I decided to move one particularly onerous repair from the back burner to the front burner, as I knew it would be a fix that would make Bernadette happy — my way of expressing how much I'd missed her, and welcoming her home. What a guy; I decided to surprise her and fix the fridge, that no-good tyrant who steals energy and forces you to run the engine. To make the repair would involve, first of all, a ferry trip to Cancún to look for a replacement compressor. I didn't want to go to Cancún, but, hey, that's how much I love my wife.

Photo of locals queued up outside tortillerías in Isla Locals queue up outside tortillerías, such as this one in Isla, and buy their stacks of tortillas by the kilo, still hot from the oven.

When we first went shopping for boats, I horrified Mi Última by announcing that I didn't care if we had a fridge. We rarely eat meat and never stock it, so I figured a freezer was one more system I didn't really understand. Plus, they're prone to break, and I was always hearing cruisers moaning about being detained for weeks on end in this harbor or that waiting for fridge parts to arrive. So, of course, we ended up with a boat that has not one, but two refrigeration systems. First, there's a monster engine-driven system with massive cold plates that up until several months ago could keep a small elk frozen rock-solid for weeks. When running the boat's engine and the compressor for this system, freon, that politically incorrect and terrific freezer gas that is somehow eating the ozone layer (Great tan, dude!) circulates through hoses into the cold plates where it does its stuff.

Refrigeration doesn't make things cold, I've learned; what it does is remove heat. And for this, freon is a critical part of the process. Something has to be done with all that heat, though, and in this unit, seawater circulating through the system grabs it and pours it back in the ocean where it belongs. This big-plate system also has a second upper box, built into the cabinetry above the counter and designed to be used as a "day fridge." Into this upper box we're supposed to put whatever we might need that day so we don't have to open up the big bottom box and let in more of the heat we want to get rid of in the first place. Each of these units is regulated separately. I hope you see how nutty and knotty this is getting.

In addition to this system, we have a smaller independent system, located inside the lower refrigeration compartment, and it has nothing to do with the day-fridge upper box. It uses a more environmentally friendly substance call R-134 instead of the deadly efficient R-12 freon. Ideally, the little system is used as a freezer, runs off the ship's batteries, and is cooled by air instead of sea water. When the engine-driven unit was doing its job, the little unit was ideal as a freezer, but now we're using it to keep the whole box cold, and that's not efficient. To do its job, it's cycling on and off all day, and sucking humongous amounts of juice out of the batteries, which means we have to run the engine more often to charge our battery bank.

Photo of the ubiquitous Mexican blankets Isla is a honky-tonk town, selling everything from the ubiquitous Mexican blankets, to souvenirs and trinkets on every corner. For three weeks in March, we settled in and called it home.

All this is a long-winded epistle on two systems, each complicated in their own perverse way, neither compatible with the other (or with me!) for servicing, and both more bother than they're worth. Mi Última thinks all systems on a boat ought to work all the time and always is amazed when anything breaks, which means she's amazed a lot. I, on the other hand, have never seen a silver cloud without assuming it has a dark lining, and therefore I expect everything to fall apart when we most need it. I've come to understand why so many long-term cruisers either don't repair their fridges when they die, or just rip the bastards out. Or they build new boats and don't install them in the first place. The fewer systems there are, the fewer will break and the more time you'll have to make love, go diving, read books, and eat lobsters. I figure if the watermaker goes, the head quits and the engine dies, pretty soon we'll actually have a sailboat. I talked with a guy yesterday who bragged to me that all his winches are on hydraulic systems. I just felt sorry for him, and offered my condolences.

Despite good sense, I set off today to see what I could do about our lifeless compressor whose death, I believe, can be attributed to a gradual leak. Our precious freon slowly escaped into the atmosphere where, right now, it's probably killing brain cells or whales or Jane Fonda. Because freon also carries the oil that lubricates the compressor, the beast ran dry, and sort of choked itself to death. At least that's my theory. And lots of guys in the anchorage, who know plenty more than I do, think so, too. Although you'll recall that a lot of guys in Columbus's day agreed with each other that the world was flat.

I cajoled my friend Harold into joining me on a trip to Cancún. He said he'd come along, but only if I didn't mention to his wife Diane that I wanted to fix the beast as a gift for Bernadette, as it would set the bar too high for him over on Sea Camp.

Photo of replica of the painted Mayan carvings Cruising warriors Douglas and Harold discuss terms before attempting the refrigeration repair. (Replica of the painted Mayan carvings at Chichen-Itza, Mexico).

First, Harold and I took the dinghy into shore. There's a cold front over Texas, now winding its way east, so for the past two days the anchorage has had 20 knots of winds and nasty little whitecaps. We splashed against the wind all the way to the dinghy dock, and my shorts and underpants became soaked with salt water, which was not going to dry all day, and neither would I. Cruisers refer to this inevitable, on-going condition unattractively as "dinghy butt," for which I've been told diaper-rash ointments offer reasonable short-term relief.

Then we took a ferry boat over to the mainland, and a bus to someplace that turned out to be the wrong place, so we took a cab over to the corner of Lopez Portilla and Something-or-Other, and finally found the shop. Harold's Spanish is far superior to mine, and we think the man said that yes, a guy could come out to the boat and examine the problem, use his nuclear-powered leak detector, find the culprit, fix the leak, evacuate any remaining freon, refill the system, test for leaks again, install a new compressor, and he figured for all that it would be $600 or $700. Back home in Newport, when we had a similar but not quite so dire problem with the same fridge — the compressor still worked then — it was $453, not counting freon, which in the States is $60 per pound.

Photo of Douglas at dinghy dock in Isla Douglas at the dinghy dock in Isla, contemplating his shorts.

This situation illuminates a key difference between needs and wants. If cold beer is a requirement of life, this might be construed as a bargain, as freon, of which we would need four pounds, only costs $5 a pound here, leading me to fantasize about smuggling freon canisters, and making a killing in the black market.

Unfortunately, to perform all this magic, the service guy would need to plug his equipment into a 110 outlet, and run the freon-evacuating vacuum all night long. Ithaka, however, is anchored about 750 yards from the nearest 110 outlet. Because this is the busy season here, there are no openings in the local Isla marinas until sometime in 2006. I found I might be able to tie up to the shrimp dock for a day or two, but only if the shrimpers are out on an extended run, and that's a function of weather, so not predictable. Anyway, before inviting the freezer mechanic to take ferries and dinghies, I'd need to take the dead unit out and bring it back to Cancún so he could be sure it's really dead, say the proper blessing, and bury the sucker.

I was caught now in the horns of a dilemma: I wanted to please my beloved, but I also dreaded the sequence of events and expenses that would constitute this repair.

Photo of sunset over Isla

Harold and I trudged toward the bus stop, stopped at a street restaurant, bought a large grilled fish and considered the state of the world. A couple of Dos Equis later, I recaptured shreds of perspective: For the time being, at least, the little unit was chugging along. Then, I wondered, did I ever truly mention to Bernadette that while she was away I'd try to get the beast fixed in the first place? No, actually I hadn't! So I decided the day had offered a pretty good adventure and that I had no intention of forking over 600 bucks. Having saved so much money, Harold and I had another beer and hopped on the bus, headed for the ferry terminal, caught the boat back to Isla, dinghied out to Ithaka, which mercifully was in the same place, and I washed off my freshly resalted bottom with the sun shower.

If our fridge went out at home, I'd check the yellow pages, probably call a repair service, schedule a time for a guy to come out — maybe even that day — watch him fix the machine in our kitchen, or if worse came to worst, curse its demise, run around to a couple of stores in the evening, throw down some plastic, and have a new machine delivered the next day.

But there are no instant fixes out here, that's for sure. What we have instead, though, are glorious sunrises over the ocean, fresh corn tortillas, savory molé sauces, chance encounters, sunsets viewed from our cockpit every evening instead of out the corner of my old office window, and a freedom that's hard to describe. I thought about all this, and the flowers I'd get to welcome home my wife, as Harold and I poured ourselves a couple fingers of seven-year-old Cuban rum. It tasted fine, thanks, just as it was. No ice required.